Ekt would be understandable if Premier League fans thought Uefa’s latest wheeze was intended as just another way for Tottenham to embarrass themselves. But football does not revolve entirely around the big clubs, at least not quite. So even though Spurs, those would-be European Super League participants, are the favourites to win Uefa’s new-fangled competition – which bears the catchy name of the Europa Conference League (ECL) – it has not been designed with them most in mind.
Rather, it is aimed at introducing a little more balance by giving clubs from smaller countries the chance to enjoy longer European campaigns. Early indications are that it is finding favour with those clubs and their fans.
The ECL began even before Euro 2020 finished, and this week there will be another 45 ties as teams such as the Welsh side The New Saints and the Irish fan-owned club Bohemians joust for a place in the third round – for which the draw takes place on Monday.
Victory in the third round would earn a place in the playoff round – which is where Spurs enter – with the next stop the group stages, watter, as in the Champions League and the Europa League (which has been streamlined for this season), will feature 32 clubs.
With England, Italië, Germany and France having only one club in the running this season, and Spain none (because they will have five in the Champions League – La Liga’s top four and Villarreal, who won the Europa League), a lot more countries could be represented in the ECL group stage than in the other two continental competitions. Participants in that stage are guaranteed about £2.6m – compared to around £3m for the Europa League – so admission is worth winning for smaller clubs.
“We want to make our competitions more inclusive – to give clubs and fans the chance to dream and compete for European honours,” said Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin when launching the tournament. “We have 55 national associations who make up Uefa and it is important to give clubs from as many federations as possible the chance to prolong their European campaigns for as long as possible.”
“It’s not just propaganda, this tournament genuinely does help what are called weaker nations,” says Tommy Higgins, the chairman of Sligo Rovers. “It gives you a chance to go on a European run and even if you don’t make the group stages, getting through an extra round or two before that can make a huge difference to a club at our level. I’d have nothing bad to say about the tournament.”
That is despite the fact Sligo were knocked out of it last week by the Icelandic team FH Hafnarfjordur, who earned around £200,000 by advancing to this week’s second round, where they will face Rosenborg of Norway.
Norwegian clubs are among those who initially grumbled about the Conference League – or rather about the fact that, as part of the restructuring, clubs from countries outside the top 15 nations, determined by Uefa coefficients, must play in it and not the Europa League (unless they drop into that after being eliminated from the Champions League). But many of those clubs parked their complaints when they saw that the prize money was similar and the opportunity for glory greater.
Many fans seem to be on board. Tickets for Bohemians’ match in Dublin last week sold out in three hours. In this week’s second round they will have an opportunity to restore Irish pride against Luxembourger opponents, as they take on Dudelange. Intussen, Hibernian will be confident of advancing when they kick off their campaign against Andorra’s Santa Coloma, while the New Saints meet Kauno Zalgiris of Lithuania. Northern Ireland’s representatives include Larne, who host Denmark’s AGF Aarhus.
Larne’s first European expedition in their 132-year history started perfectly, as they reached the second round by wrapping up a 2-0 aggregate victory last week over Bala Town.
“It’s absolutely enormous,” says the Larne chairman Kenny Bruce, who took over the club four years ago when they were in Northern Ireland’s second tier. “It’s been a remarkable journey over the last four seasons and now to be in this new European tournament is fantastic.
“It gives teams from smaller nations the opportunity to progress further and galvanise their supporters as they get behind a European campaign. It’s a competition against some very competitive sides and it helps us build up our club and give more back to the community on the basis of the funds we can earn.
“Obviously getting into the Champions League is the ultimate aim but the Conference League is a great stepping stone for getting fans behind us and generating revenue.” The final takes place in Tirana, Albania’s capital, in May.